NEW YORK –New York art dealers might need to pull out marker pens and add zeros to their price tags during Asia Week sales starting Friday in auction houses and galleries across the city.
Once a backwater of the international market, Asian art – particularly Chinese – has boomed in popularity.
Asia Week, which runs through March 24, will see leading rivals Sotheby’s and Christie’s, as well as smaller houses and individual galleries, focusing on everything from bold contemporary Indian paintings to classical Chinese ceramics.
“Our last five years we’ve seen an astonishing boom, a push into a new price level,” Henry Howard-Sneyd, vice chairman for Asian art at Sotheby’s, told Agence France-Presse.
He pointed out that in 2011 the highest grossing artists at auction in the world were not the long-predictable top dogs Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, but Zhang Daqian, with nearly $507 million in sales, and Qi Bashi, with $445 million — far ahead of their Western rivals.
That two Chinese painters barely known to the Western public should outperform artists synonymous with modern art does not surprise Sotheby’s, which in this year’s Asia Week is for the first time dedicating a distinct sale to classical Chinese works.
Among those works is a Qi Bashi painting of an eagle, somewhat similar to another of his paintings that last year sold for $65.5 million – the most expensive painting at any auction in 2011.
The version offered by Sotheby’s has an estimate of a modest $1.2-1.5 million. But Howard-Sneyd doesn’t think estimates will survive once the red hot Chinese collectors take their seats.
Gesturing at galleries filled with Chinese ceramics, paintings, fans, and furniture, he said: “I think there’ll be fireworks.”
The head of Asian art at Christie’s, Hugo Weihe, also has strong hopes for Asia Week.
Last year, sales of Asian art at Christie’s saw a double-digit percent increase and are now the second place category behind overall contemporary art, but ahead of impressionist and modern.
Weihe pointed to wealthy, patriotic Chinese looking to their pre-revolutionary past for the ultimate status symbol.
“Chinese buyers are very interested in their heritage – anything that has imperial marks. You’ve truly arrived in China if you can have something that belonged to an emperor,” Weihe said.
Better known, but entirely different, is the Indian art market.
India has produced a string of top-notch modern and contemporary artists like Subodh Gupta, whose works are still considered relatively cheap.
“Indian art is underpriced, particularly contemporary,” Weihe said. But that market will change as increasingly well educated Indian collectors think beyond simply decorating their living rooms and instead start building great national museums and collections.
“It’s going to be private individuals and enterprises, rather like it was in America 100 years ago,” Weihe said.
And the next artistic goldmine in Asia?
Pakistan is only just beginning to stir, says Deepanjana Klein, at Christie’s.
“In Southeast Asia it’s not yet that cool to be an artist, in Pakistan especially. In India, it’s taken off, but in Pakistan it’s still in its nascent phase,” she said.
Then there’s Bangladesh. The country “is having its first international art show next month, which is a huge step,” Klein said.
Ironically, many of the available classical Asian works have long been in the hands of elite, private collectors in the West, such as the recently deceased Doris Weiner.
Weiner’s collection of 400 sculptures and paintings from Gandhara, the Himalayas, India and across Southeast Asia will be part of the Christie’s sale, led by an ancient bronze titled “Shiva with Uma and Skanda,” and estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million.
With Asian collectors awakening, the old westward flow of treasures is finally being reversed.
“It will all go back,” Weihe said. “There’s no question.”